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CWA # 435, 21 February 2021

Conflict Reader
Ethiopia: Five fallouts of the military offensive in Tigray

  Apoorva Sudhakar

1. The multiple crises in Ethiopia
Even before the Tigray crisis began in November 2020, Ethiopia started to witness political and ethnic unrest. For example, the above-mentioned opposition leaders were jailed on grounds of inciting riots following the assassination of popular Oromo singer-activist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020. Similarly, other instances ethnic conflicts - like the massacre of over 200 in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in western Ethiopia - have taken place over the last few months. 

Simultaneously, the Amhara region bordering Tigray has involved itself in the conflict. The Amharas claim Tigray had annexed parts of its territory when the TPLF led the ruling coalition at the federal level prior to 2018. Currently, the Amharas are reclaiming these swathes of land. 

Further, Tigray borders the neighbouring country Eritrea, which it blames of sending troops into the region. Apart from Tigrayans, the European Union has called for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. However, both Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the involvement of Eritrean troops. 

2. The uncertainties surrounding the Tigray conflict
Hundred days after the Ethiopian government launched an offensive into Tigray on 4 November 2020, the uncertainties regarding the political developments in the region persist. After Ethiopia declared an end to the conflict on 28 November, many TPLF leaders have gone into hiding but have also vowed to continue resistance. Further, since Ethiopia had also imposed an emergency on Tigray prior to the conflict, information from the region has been difficult to verify. 

3. Creeping authoritarianism
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 on the promise of reformist and inclusive politics, after the Oromo ethnic group protested against the TPLF-led federal government for sidelining other ethnic groups. After he took office, Ahmed released political prisoners, increased the political space for previously banned parties, and also called for expansion of the digital economy. 

However, Ahmed does not find support within his own ethnic group, the Oromos. After the assassination Hundessa, anti-government protests erupted across Addis Ababa. The government then resorted to clampdown and arrest of 22 Oromo leaders. The jailed leaders started the previously mentioned hunger strike after there were reports of alleged torture of their family members. 

Therefore, over time, Ahmed has reflected an authoritarian approach by jailing opposition leaders, journalists critical of the government, and imposing frequent internet shutdowns, not just in Tigray but across the country. 

4. Friction between the federal government and Tigray
After Ahmed took over as the Prime Minister in 2018, the TPLF has complained of being sidelined in the federal decision making. The friction between the federal government and regional powers in Tigray increased in September 2020 when Tigray conducted its regional elections despite Ahmed postponing the elections to 2021. 

5. Worsening humanitarian conditions
Since the conflict in Tigray escalated, humanitarian agencies including the UN, have been calling on the government to provide unhindered access to the region, especially to the two Eritrean camps, as relief supplies were scarce. The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council said he had "rarely seen an aid response so impeded." Similarly, earlier in February 2021, the US State Department called for the withdrawal of troops and said there are “credible reports of looting, sexual violence, assaults in refugee camps and other human rights abuses.”
On the other hand, Tigrayans have been internally displaced and thousands have fled to neighbouring countries, especially Sudan. According to ReliefWeb, 4.5 million people require emergency food aid in Tigray; or else thousands would be at the risk of starvation. 

Implications of the conflict 100 days after the offensive
First, the multiple political and ethnic crises do little to help Ahmed gain the support of Ethiopians. Ahmed’s reluctance to hold any dialogue with opposition figures leads to increased resentment among the population. Other than the federal-regional frictions, old ethnic divides have been revived. In the current atmosphere, it is unlikely that Ahmed will succeed in establishing the inclusive governance he once promised. However, the previous regime too has shaped the current state of affairs as it did not leave much space for Ahmed to reverse the authoritarian past of Ethiopia.

Second, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in the Tigray region, the scale of which remains unknown as the government is controlling information from the region and also dismissing independent reports or claims made by journalists or aid organisations. Further, despite agreeing to let the UN have unhindered access to Tigray, the government has not stood up to its word.  Therefore, it can be concluded that Tigray is one of the conflicts that is taking place among several others in Ethiopia. Ahmed cannot afford to have a long-drawn conflict in Tigray as several other issues need his attention. It is in the best interest of Ethiopia if Ahmed holds talks with Tigrayan leaders to bring an end to the stalemate. 

Recent Developments in Ethiopia

19 February 2021

The BBC, quoting a media organisation affiliated to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reported that the party leaders had issued certain conditions to hold peace talks with Ethiopia’s federal government. The conditions include: withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara groups from the region, an independent inquiry into the ethnic cleansing of Tigray, access to humanitarian aid for the 4.5 million people impacted, unconditional release of political prisoners, and the disbandment of Tigray’s new interim administration formed by the federal government. Lastly, the Tigray leaders demanded that peace talks with the Ethiopian government be led and monitored by an independent international committee. 

14 February 2021

Ethiopia marked 100 days since the government launched its military offensive into the country’s northern region, Tigray. On the same day, Nation reported that at least 28 people were killed and dozens injured in the conflict-hit Tigray region during the anti-government protests which started on 8 February; Ethiopian forces allegedly used live bullets against the protesters.

13 February 2021

Aljazeera reported that the condition of jailed Oromo opposition leaders who have been on a hunger strike since 27 January deteriorated; four leaders were taken to the hospital after they collapsed. 

11 February 2021

The Director-General of Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs announced the closure of two Eritrean refugee camps citing the impact of the Tigray conflict on the two. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said the two camps had been destroyed and the refugees displaced.


About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in South Asia and Africa, climate change and human-wildlife conflict. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan's domestic politics, radicalization and group identities.

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